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Date of Issue: January 03, 2008

Birders tally Gulf Circle species

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Birding by the numbers
Birders Mark Davis, from left, Rick Greenspun and Dick Ware spot a northern gannet diving into the Gulf during the Audubon Christmas Bird Count conducted on Anna Maria Island Dec. 27. Islander Photos: Lisa Neff
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Kathryn Young makes some notes in a preliminary tally during the Christmas Bird Count. Later she transferred the numbers to an official scorecard. The Audubon Society uses the numbers to track trends in the birding population.
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Kathryn Young and Mark Davis look through binoculars to count gulls during the annual Christmas Bird Count conducted on Anna Maria Island last week.
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Birder Mark Davis walks toward his colleagues in the Christmas Bird Count, conducted Dec. 27 on Anna Maria Island.
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A blue-gray gnatcatcher in the field: Islander Photo: David Williamson

Mark Davis, Rick Greenspun, Dick Ware and Kathryn Young spent last Thursday searching for migrating snowbirds and yearlong residents - the sort with wings and feathers.

The four participated in the Gulf Circle Christmas Bird Count, which began at sunrise Dec. 27. The Gulf Circle includes Anna Maria Island, and parts of northern Longboat Key, Perico Island and Cortez.

Additional counts took place in Manatee and Sarasota counties earlier in December, part of the Audubon Society’s 108th Christmas Bird Count.

The longest-running wildlife census in the world, the Christmas count has become an annual tradition for citizen volunteers and scientists in communities throughout the Americas.

Davis, Greenspun, Ware and Young are veteran Christmas counters and avid birders.

Ware, a winter resident on Perico Island, estimated he has participated in 50 counts, most of them in Illinois, near Springfield and along the Illinois River. He began birding when he was 12.

“I just love it,” Ware said.

Greenspun was on his fourth count of 2007 last Thursday. “And then we have one more to do,” he said.

The data the four collected helps Audubon and other conservation partners to assess the status of birds and habitats vital to feathered flyers across the Western Hemisphere, according to a spokesman with the national headquarters.

Each of the citizens who … take part in the Christmas Bird Count is making an enormous contribution to conservation, said Geoff LeBaron, National Audubons Christmas Bird Count Director. Counting is the first step in learning how environmental threats are affecting our birds - and in helping to protect them.

New analysis of Christmas Bird Count data will focus on how populations or ranges may be changing due to the effects of global climate change.

The CBC began more than a century ago, when 27 conservationists in 25 localities, led by scientist and writer Frank Chapman, changed the course of ornithological history. On Christmas Day 1900, the small group posed an alternative to the side hunt, a Christmas day activity in which teams competed to see who could shoot the most birds and small mammals. Instead, Chapman proposed that they identify, count and record all the birds they saw, founding what is now considered to be the worlds most significant citizen-based conservation effort - and a more than century-old institution.

During the 2006 CBC, nearly 70 million birds were counted by nearly 58,000 volunteers, a record level of participation - with counts taking place in all 50 states, every Canadian province, parts of Central and South America, Bermuda, the West Indies and the Pacific Islands.

The CBC method requires that volunteers count birds within an established15-mile diameter.

When Ware, Greenspun, Davis and Young began their count from the Island Branch Library at about 7 a.m. Dec. 27, Greenspun suggested to Ware, “Zero out the odometer.”

As they exited the library parking lot and drove slowly past a line of trees in the field north of Holmes Beach City Hall, they listened for sounds.

“I hear something,” Young said from the back seat.

“Osprey,” Greenspun said quickly from the right side of the seat.

“Yep, on your side,” Young observed and made a note on her scorecard.

She looked across the field for killdeer, but was surprised to see none.

Young began birding several years ago, but quickly picked up the knowledge to ID birds by sight and sound. Her indoctrination was big - a trip to a birding capital of the world, Churchill, in the province of Manitoba, a significant breeding ground for birds.

Greenspun, a birder for decades, said skilled birders could identify many birds from their general shape, the way they fly or a distinguishing characteristic.

“I love everything about birds,” he said. “They are just pretty amazing when you think about it. What they do. That they haven’t changed in millions of years. They are perfect creatures.”

Greenspun learned about these creatures from fieldwork, from reading, from seminars and from his involvement with the Audubon Society at various levels.

“I just kind of gobbled up everything I could. But the best way to start to learn is from Audubon,” he said. A Manatee County club meets once a month in Bradenton, as well as conducts regular outings.

Ware navigated his SUV onto Marina Drive and then out to Key Royale.

“Watch your side,” Greenspun suggested to the passengers as they crossed the new Key Royale Bridge.

The vehicle slowed to a crawl for the birders to spot a ring-billed gull, four great egrets and two brown pelicans.

They drove on.

“There’s a wood stork,” said Davis, who lives in Atlanta and winters on Longboat Key. Davis, on his third Christmas count, is a veteran birder at the Celery Fields in Sarasota, Myakka State Park and on the area beaches.

“Every day,” he said, when asked how often he birds. “There are no bad days. You know the fishing saying? A bad day fishing is better than a good day working. That’s birding, too. It’s great to get out.”

Someone mentioned that a resident on Key Royale feeds the storks and there was a collective “ugh” in the car. Not a good practice, said Young.

The group tracked the miles they drove and the feet they walked as they scanned the skies, trees, ground and water for birds.

Someone heard redwing blackbirds. Someone spotted a massive gathering of starlings in a tree along Gulf Drive. Another noticed grackles on an electrical wire.

“You always hope to find something rare,” Greenspun said, noting that already in the national count a birder near Florida’s Mount Dora saw a rare Say’s Phoebe. Later, Greenspun said that seeing a rarity can be thrilling but even pigeons are fascinating to observe. “Remarkable birds,” he said.

Standing on the shore in Holmes Beach, the group shared excitement over watching northern gannets dive into the water.

“Look at that,” Davis said as a bird plunged.

The birders also shared concern for some of the species they didn’t see; most notably, there were no common loons in the Gulf and no sanderlings on the shore.

“You look at numbers over time in the count,” said Greenspun. “You look for change, maybe something that’s wrong. Everything in nature is a barometer for environmental health.”

The proverbial canaries in the coal mine, birds provide an early warning indicator of the health of the global climate.

“A lot of common species have not been found this year,” he continued. “Out here, you should see loons everywhere. I’ve seen one so far all winter.”

A spokesman for the National Audubon praised birders across the country for braving snow, sleet and rain to join the Christmas count.

Davis, Young, Ware and Greenspun enjoyed perfect weather last Thursday, starting on a mild morning that warmed as the fog drifted from the mainland into the Gulf.

Ware has participated in counts up north and knows first-hand there are a lot more birds to see in Holmes Beach than Jacksonville, Ill.

Greenspun observed, “You should see some of the numbers in Saskatchewan. They have like eight.”

That’s an exaggeration, but the Island counters agreed that they would see many more birds than those counting in frigid climates.

“It’s all about food,” Greenspun said. “Birds don’t really feel cold.”

As they stood on the sand about a half-mile from Manatee Public Beach, the foursome “scoped the shore.”

“Great blue heron on the roof,” shouted Greenspun.

“Two golden slippers,” Young said, holding a clipboard and binoculars in one hand and pointing toward the water with the other.

“Three cormorants,” Ware said in a loud voice.

Davis spotted two more egrets.

And then, close to the public beach pier, the foursome arrived in the midst of a crowd - dozens of gulls of varying types.

They counted.

And counted.

And counted.